Torero’s Chicano Roots Lay in Lomas
By Brent E. Beltrán
Mario “Torero” Acevedo is one of those crazy cats that you look at and instantly think this guy is an artist. He rocks the cool shades with a stylin’ hat, neatly trimmed white beard and occasional outlandish, paint splattered threads.
But he’s more than just a crazy artist. He’s San Diego history. He is Chicano history even though he’s from Peru. And since he came to San Diego in 1960 he’s been an integral part of Golden Hill’s history.
I’ve known Torero since 1992 when I was a student and member of M.E.Ch.A. at Mesa College. With the help of my fellow Mechistas he painted a mural on campus that year dedicated to Rodney King. He also supplied the paint when on October 12 we “discovered” a wall and claimed it our own by painting slogans against Christopher Columbus and the 500th anniversary of the so-called discovery of the Americas.
School authorities didn’t take too kindly to our discovery as they tried to arrest us. But we didn’t care. We were young, brave and weren’t afraid of taking on the cops when we had to.
Torero has a long history of being an artivist in San Diego. From the founding of Chicano Park and the Centro Cultural de la Raza to the Community Arts Center and Sol Arts Gallery to Reincarnation, the Art Station and more. He was instrumental in leading the effort to change the name of Crosby St. in Logan to Cesar Chavez Parkway. His artwork can be seen all over San Diego.
His most well known project is probably the Eyes of Picasso, which has seen many incarnations since they first gazed down upon the people of Downtown from the Community Arts Center building which was destroyed to make way for Horton Plaza.
As part of San Diego Free Press’ coverage of Golden Hill I decided to interview Torero and talk about his connections to Lomas. I met him in front of one of his three Golden Hill murals on the corner of 28th and B St. which at one time was the epicenter for art and culture on the Hill. After transcribing our interview I decided that I wanted Torero to speak for himself without me getting in the way. Here he is.
On his Golden Hill Roots:
I’m an immigrant [from Lima, Peru]. I [was born in 1947 and] came here in 1960. My father showed up a few months earlier in 1959 on his way to New York but he stayed in San Diego. He liked it. He was an immediate hit. He was such a good artist. By 1961 he bought his first house in Golden Hill. On the corner of 30th and G St. This was right after [freeway] 94 was built. Golden Hill used to go to 30th. It was still considered Golden Hill when we bought it in 1961.
When I first got here in 1960, I got here in January, by February he put me in elementary school. I was in the 6th grade and I went to Brooklyn Elementary. That was my first impact of America. My teacher was Mrs. Brown. She was the most beautiful lady.
There was all white people in the school. There was only one Mexican-American girl. She was ashamed of speaking Spanish. She would be very difficult [when I needed translation]. I was kind of on my own. There was only one Japanese and no blacks. [I spoke] a little bit [of English], hardly. Didn’t fully understand it.
That lady, Mrs. Brown, took a real liking to me. She used to spend [time] in the afternoons teaching me how to pronounce [words]. I was so innocent, twelve years old going on thirteen. I accepted this with kindness because I didn’t know the history of repression and racism in the United States. I didn’t know anything.
My father continued to be very successful. Somewhere around 1965, 66, 67 they created the first artist’s house, artists commune, like a house where artists lived. Jim Bleisner was part of that. My father was part of that. That was the corner of 30th and E St. That was the first arts place. There were three: Guillermo Acevedo, Jim Bleisner and Roger Lucero’s mother. That’s how multicultural community arts began in San Diego.
My father was a successful artist [in Lima]. He had a cultural center there. It was a business but really a hangout for all of the bohemian artists of Lima. So I was raised around that. When we came to the United States it was to try to recreate that kind of thing, a gathering place for artists which we didn’t find here.
That’s why this house on 30th and E was kind of the beginning of that. Artists wanted to get together, you know, bohemians. At the same time Jim Bleisner was involved with NOP, Neighborhood Outreach Program. Which was on the corner of 28th and B. It was a cultural space more than just a place where kids hung out.
We still have the house on 30th. My sister lives there with my nephews. Our roots are here in Golden Hill.
On what Golden Hill was like in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s:
It was Raza. It was Lomas. It was Chicano land. When I first came in 1960 it was all white people. In the late ‘70’s, the exodus from Mexico, this area became Lomas because there were so many Chicanos here.
On Chicano Park:
Then of course 1970 came. I joined the Chicano Movement. My father was also there trying to continue and create an arts atmosphere for San Diego. Chicanos were very fertile grounds. My friends became Victor Ochoa, Guillermo [Aranda], [Salvador] Queso [Torres]. My father even knew Queso before Queso even knew me because my father was always in the arts scene and Queso was older.
It was always that cross-pollination going on between Latinos primarily, Chicanos. My father, being already kind of famous, he was the first Latino to be in the papers, before that we didn’t even exist. We started Chicano Park in 1970. So to me Chicano Park, the barrio, was not enough. Because I was always raised to say the arts is universal.
On Acevedo Art Gallery/Community Arts:
Just down the street on B St. was Tom Hom, one of my father’s friends. It was Tom Hom who gave my father a break in opening up the first gallery Downtown in 1976.
I talked to my father, “lets go Downtown”. He was already the first artist to open up with [Diane] Powers at Bazaar Del Mundo. His was the first art gallery in Old Town. I said papa we gotta go Downtown. That’s the place to be at. He agreed and talked to Tom Hom.
Tom Hom had property and we opened up the first gallery ever Downtown at 8th and Broadway in 1976 for the bicentennial of the United States called the Acevedo Art Gallery International. By the following year it became the Community Arts Center, the first multicultural center for San Diego where black, brown and white for the first time were facing each other. They had never even faced each other because it was a very segregated city, as we know.
So we were there, Community Arts, from 1977 to 1982. All the key Chicanos had something to do with it Marco Anguiano, [Nuyorican poet Jesus] Papoleto [Melendez], [Manuel] Zopilote [Mancillas], Larry Baza. So when they closed the Community Arts Center for Horton Plaza the artists got kicked out. But even before we started going to the East Village. But a lot of us came back to Golden Hill.
While I was at Community Arts Center in 1978 I was the muralist specialist. I went out painting murals throughout. That’s when I went back to Chicano Park and did the Muralathon there which Victor [Ochoa] participated. We got that going there in 1978. At the same time I went to Ocean Beach and painted there with [SDFP’s] Frank [Gormlie] and did that beautiful mural that we want to paint again, the revolutionary mural.
Then I came back to Golden Hill and painted this mural [on Golden Hill Liquor on 28th and B St.]. All in ’78. We went back downtown, got kicked out and I came back over here.
On Sol Arts Gallery:
In 1980 I opened the first gallery here in Golden Hill [on 28th and B St.], where Starbucks is, called Sol Arts Gallery. We rented all those little apartments downstairs. We rented across the street. We were taking over this corner. Artists involved were Zopilote, Coyote, Rita Sanchez who was my wife at the time.
By 1980 I painted a second mural [in Golden Hill] by the Sol Art Gallery. The idea was to muralize this area. We started the Golden Hill Arts District. There was a newspaper at the time, the Golden Hill Newsletter or something in which I was the artist. I did a lot of comic strips. I did the cartoons for a year or two. By 1982 Sol Arts closed.
By the middle 80’s we started looking Downtown again. That’s when I hooked up in the East Village with the Reincarnation Project. We were only [in Golden Hill] holding grounds looking at Downtown. A lot of the artists were still developing the East Village. We were in contact and went back there after [Golden Hill].
On the Community Arts Center was the first Eyes of Picasso. I finished in 1978 on August 28, the day that my daughter Lucilla was born I finished the Eyes of Picasso. That got destroyed by 1982 when they tore down the building. And then I painted it again on the Reincarnation in 1991.
Reincarnation was on 11th and J, which was a building my father and I were looking at to create a cultural center. We had been eyeing that building because it had been abandoned for a long time. When Wayne Buss was impressed with what I was doing at Community Arts Center he contacted me. He and I got together. I brought the community and the artists and developed the Reincarnation Project.
On Golden Hill Murals:
All the kids in Lomas admired Chicano Park. You guys want to paint in Chicano Park? Yes! In order to paint over there we need to practice. Why don’t we paint a mural locally and then Chicano Park?
In 1978 we painted the liquor store mural and then I took the same group of Lomas kids and painted the Virgen de Guadalupe at Chicano Park for the Muralathon. The Lomas boys were very scared of going there. Chicano Park was neutral ground though. There were no hassles with the Logan boys.
This mural [on Golden Hill Liquor] was decaying. I used to come by here on my own to try and touch it up. But the owner would come out and chase me off. He wanted to expand and get rid of the mural. He let it deteriorate. Half of it was painted up because it was getting graffiti. I thought it was the end of that.
It wasn’t until 1990 we brought Rocco Satoshi from Japan and painted Brooklyn Elementary. Me and Ruben Seja did a cultural exchange with Tijuana, San Diego and Yokohama. We met Rocco and brought him to San Diego. We opened the Wikiup [Café] in North Park. He painted at Chicano Park and we painted at Brooklyn Elementary.
It was about two or three years ago that Brooklyn Elementary changed to Einstein. And they were debating should we keep the mural or fix it up? From the very first time we painted it in 1990 some people didn’t like it at all but most people loved it. So that’s why it stayed there.
Then the question came [after the mural got faded] should we destroy it or not? The consensus was the community wanted to keep it. They made contact with me. We tried to negotiate. We never got the money. But on my own I would bring my artivista group. And we’ve refurbished the mural from the bottom about ten feet up. We still need to do the top.
The son of the [Golden Hill Liquor] owner had a little more vision than the father. The son told the father to keep the mural. He found me and offered some money for the Einstein mural and asked me to fix the liquor store mural. He put in a little bit of money for paints. It’s almost done.
We hope to do more murals. Last year an old friend of the family put in a new fence up on 26th and Broadway. And it got tagged. She freaked out, called me and asked me to do a mural. The artivists went there and started painting. We’re almost done with it.
[Around 1980] Makeda [Cheatom] had the Baobob Tree where Alchemy is now [30th and Beech]. Before she had the World Beat Center she had the Baobob. We painted the whole outside all African. That’s another mural that we had. It got wiped out when she moved out. She was there maybe two years.
On South Park:
As you know South Park’s gentrification is ongoing. It was pushing the line of South Park because it was a new creation. [In my youth] it was North Park and Golden Hill. South Park didn’t exist. It’s only recently. Since the line wasn’t fixed it continues to eat into Golden Hill. We, including Judy from the Big Kitchen, took a stand. We gotta stop here. So on Upas we tried to stop it. From Upas this way is Golden Hill. No, they still pushed it up to Juniper. Then A St. The next thing there will be no Golden Hill. That helped us think about creating some kind of resistance activity. As artivists let’s do it through murals.
On Cesar Chavez Blvd.:
In 2000, 2001, 2002 we needed a school in the Chicano Park area. I talked to the Baptist church. They had a gas station on the corner. Go ahead Mario [they said]. We had the Art Station for a year.
By 2002 we created the King Chavez School. I stayed with them for a few years. Through the process of working there I organized the community, students primarily.
We created the Cesar Chavez Blvd plan that would’ve gone all the way to Golden Hill. We presented to Barrio Logan. They loved it. Sherman loved it. But when the word got over here, we came to Golden Hill, the gringos were trying to take it all back. They were freaked out. They were trying to get rid of all the Mexicans and here comes Cesar Chavez Blvd. Forget it!
They told this to [the Barrio Station’s] Rachel Ortiz and [city councilman] Ralph Insunza. Don’t you even! They put a stop to it. Rachel Ortiz turned on me. She was going for the idea at the time. Then she turned on me because of the pressure the city was putting on her. Don’t go for this Cesar Chavez thing. It frustrated me to the max. The whole community wanted it and they’re not paying attention.
I took off on my first trip to Peru. I called it pilgrimage to Machu Pichu. I was there almost six months, held back by some paperwork. During that gap I was gone Insunza wanted to get reelected and he had nothing to show. So that’s when he said you know this idea about Cesar Chavez [Blvd] sounds good. He stole it!
But La Prensa got ahold of it and the whole community said “What the fuck?” This is Mario’s and King Chavez. It was a community effort and he comes in here like he’s done something. That’s when La Prensa came out with the article exposing Insunza. Insunza apologized to me. And [the project] went on. It didn’t go past Commercial. The idea is we still want 25th to be changed to Cesar Chavez. Will it still happen? I don’t know.
On working with the Golden Hill Association:
Right now there’s the Golden Hill Association. Me and Carol, she’s my girlfriend, we are members. We’ve been going to the meetings and they’re supporting what we’re doing, the beautification program.
We’ve got three murals happening: [Golden Hill Liquor], Einstein and the fence. But we want more. July 28, which happens to be Peruvian independence day, is gonna be their second annual street fair on 25th between C and D. We plan on painting the bathrooms at Cesar Chavez Park [Golden Hill Park].
I still call it Cesar Chavez Park. They call Cesar Chavez Park the one at the waterfront [at the end of Cesar Chavez Pkwy]. Uh uh. That was gonna be Chicano Park at the Bay. [Golden Hill Park] was gonna have a sculpture of Cesar Chavez standing there looking down 25th. That was the plan!
So we’re going to be painting the bathrooms there. They’re all going for it. Right now I’m negotiating. They want to see the sketches. They’re gonna raise money and get me materials. The artivists are all excited. We’re rallying to July 28th.
We meet every last Thursday of the month. It’s fun. There’s a whole new element happening in this area. Businesses moving in. Opening up new restaurants. New shops. We get to know each other. Everybody comes in very enthusiastic moving in here. It’s got a good vibe.
Torero is the man with the plan. Ideas pop forth from his artistic mind with every breath. His Golden Hill life is but one aspect of the work that he does. There is so much more behind the cool shades and stylin’ hat, the neatly trimmed beard and the sometimes outlandish, paint splattered threads.